The common ingredient: Not MILK, but MILC.
What is MILC? The raw definition, according to Professor Thomas Lee, of Stanford University , reveals M stands for money, I is ignorance, L represents luck, and C is craziness. All of these components reflect the infancy of product innovation.
Seed money is required to get going. Ignorance of the enormity of the task is required otherwise the engineering team wouldn’t even bother to start the job. Luck is omnipresent with the confluence of both external and internal factors leading to the birth of the first iteration of any startup’s product. And last but not least, you’ve got to be crazy to risk your career, family, and friends to be part of any upstart startup; it’s not a rational impulse .
Failure Spawned Engineering
Professor Lee espouses the notion that electric engineers are the descendants of failure. His tongue-in-cheek lecture delivered to a group of electrical and computer science engineers at a December 2015 IEEE EMC Society meeting garnered much interest. He talked about the lack of science employed in the early days of telegraphy. There was certainly no electrical engineering discipline at the start of the nineteenth century and everything to do with electricity was based on the “electric arts,” which was primarily “rule of thumb” experience. In fact, Lee maintains there is a “big black hole of knowledge over the past 150 years” when it comes to the emergence of electrical engineering .
From such early wired communications, using Morse code that had to be deciphered, to today’s wireless connectivity, featuring voice, images, and video, engineers have become the magicians of the modern age.
You could say the one-time losers have become the undisputed winners (leaders) in the digital communications era. Lee noted that the advances are so staggering that access to smartphones has become a human rights issue. Indeed, closer to home, the evolution from wired to wireless led to a labor dispute for retaining the old workplace roles, as the 2016 CWA strike against Verizon brought to light.
Certainly the mobile phone has become ubiquitous. More than four million cell phones are sold each day. There are now more than seven billion mobile subscriptions, which accounts for about 99 percent of the world’s population. Texting is epidemic, with some 250,000 texts sent every second.
(Talk about a noise-to-signal ratio! For the lay reader, that’s engineering humor.)
On New Year’s Day 2002, the human race officially became a mobile species: there were more wireless connections than wired hook-ups.
Getting there was not easy. Lee cited JFK’s famous challenge made at Rice University on September 12, 1962: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard . . .”
If you’re not challenged, if you’re not doing something that is hard to achieve, you can’t advance as a society and certainly not in the field of technology.
Got Milk? MILC?
Lee argues that MILC (pronounced “milk”) is the secret formula for success. In engineering terms, it’s written: G = f (M, I, L, C), where, as I highlighted earlier, M is money, I is ignorance, L is luck, and C is craziness.
Upstart Startups, such as Cerent, must have received their dose of MILC in the late 1990s. Instead of trying to increase capacity on copper wire across long distances, Cerent sought to boost the capacity on optical fibers spanning metropolitan areas. The latter challenge made significant inroads to “break the bandwidth bottleneck.”
M: Vinod Khosla brought the money to the table as his Fiberlane morphed into Cerent, where he became board chairman.
I: Mike Hatfield and Ajaib Bhadare, post-Fiberlane, defined a product that would challenge the optical transport oligopoly of the 1990s, ignoring the seeming impossibility of the task to win in the marketplace.
C: The idea was crazy, the employees were fearless (and confident), and the customers (service providers) were awesome in their willingness to try something new after a decade of the status quo from staid suppliers of the same old thing (legacy SONET transport).
And as any startup knows, once you secure a customer or two, MILC it for all it’s worth.
 Thomas H. Lee is an electrical engineering professor at Stanford University. He founded the Stanford Microwave Integrated Circuits Laboratory in 1994. His principal areas of professional interest include analog circuitry of all types, ranging from low-level DC instrumentation to high-speed RF communications systems. His present research focus is on CMOS RF integrated circuit design, and on extending operation into the terahertz realm. Lee holds approximately 50 U.S. patents.
 I capture Lee’s presentation of MILC in my A World Perspective newsletter, recounting the story of the deployment of the first Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cable. Send an E-mail to email@example.com and I’d be happy to forward you a copy of the Cyrus West Field story. He established the first global communications network. Amazingly, no amplifiers were used to transmit a signal from one end of the ocean to the other.
 In June 1863, Josiah Willard Gibbs, according to Anthony Serafin, “became the first American ever to be awarded a Ph.D. in engineering, for a dissertation titled “On the Form of the Teeth of Wheels in Spur Gearing” [from the Sheffield Scientific School in New Haven, a division of Yale University]. Gibbs was one of only three to receive it that year in science. (Yale had, in fact, been the first school in the United States to award that degree, and the year it gave the award to Gibbs was the third year that Yale conferred the Ph.D. in any field.)”
Source: Legends in Their Own Time; A Century of American Physical Scientists, Anthony Serafini, 1993, Plenum Press, New York, pp. 36–37.